THEATRE REVIEW: Seize The Day by Kwame Kwei-Armah (Tricycle Theatre, London)

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Seize The Day is the brand new play written and directed by renowned actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, now showing at the Tricycle Theatre as part of their ‘Not Black And White’ season – three pieces reflecting on the state of contemporary Britain.

Jeremy Charles, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, is upwardly-mobile young London personified.  With his respectable, English wife and plush house, he’s enjoying newfound success as a Reality TV star, off the back of a The Apprentice-style show.  He is in demand for everything from autographs to presenting work. One day, whilst filming a report he intervenes in a scuffle involving some young Afro-Caribbean men; when one of them, Lavelle (Aml Ameen), threatens to stab Jeremy he knocks him unconscious.  The whole incident is caught on camera and thanks to YouTube Jeremy’s popularity gets a further boost.

In steps opportunistic power-broker Karl Collins’ Howard Jones (no, not the ’80s synth-pop star), would-be kingmaker with his own axe to grind.  He thinks Jeremy has the star-quality and ‘cross-over appeal’ to run as the first Afro-Caribbean mayor of London.  Jeremy is reluctant at first; he’s spent his whole life trying not be defined solely by his race and the tokenism of Jones’ proposal doesn’t sit well with him.  However, he’s a man of ideals, seeing politics as a vehicle for change across the community (although Jones has other ideas).  Jeremy is eventually convinced by Howard and his team– as well as his mistress – to run for mayor and the wheels are set in motion for his campaign.

Meanwhile Jeremy’s life and that of Lavelle, the young man who almost stabbed him, become inextricably linked after the attack.   Lavelle has to visit Jeremy as a condition of his probation and the latter sees himself as the Henry Higgins to the former’s Eliza Doolittle.  Lavelle is bright and articulate when he wants to be. Jeremy is not oblivious to his potential and wants to make him his pet project for reform.  As far as Lavelle is concerned, Mr Charles is just another ‘sell-out black man’ fortunate enough to get a break through the democratisation of celebrity by Reality TV.

As with his previous plays, the beauty of Seize The Day is its topicality and relevance to modern Britain.  Like all good theatre it holds a mirror up to society and forces us to confront important issues that are not always palatable.  Race relations are familiar territory for Kwei-Armah (as evident in his highly impressive political drama Statement of Regret which played at the National Theatre in 2008) but the angle differs from piece to piece.

In Seize The Day the main point up for discussion – and all too pertinent in my view – seems to be the notion of a single racial identity and all the problems that come with, such as the perpetuation and commercialisation of negative stereotypes.  Can and should ‘blackness’ be proscribed?

The play also takes a look at the poisoned chalice that is celebrity; especially that of the instant variety that, with the exponential increase of Reality TV personalities, has become the bane of this decade.  In addition, Kwei-Armah shines a light on the evermore cynical nature of politics in the 21st century.  Jeremy at times comes across as the wide-eyed ingénue as he speaks of wanting to make a difference with his policies whilst Howard and his team are more concerned with turning their marionette into just another career politician who says exactly the right things to get in power.  As Jeremy soon finds out, the competing interests of those around him and the immense expectation lead to compromises that leave little room for integrity.

As always, Kwei-Armah’s research is spot-on. He really gets under the skin of Westminster Village life yet he still manages to take the audience with him, staying clear of arcane political references and jargon.  In this way he keeps the verisimilitude without losing the accessibility of the story.   The fairly intimate feel of the Tricycle suits the sparse nature of Seize The Day‘s set – simple images displayed on a large flat screen television serve as the backdrop for each scene.  The effect is subtle and unobtrusive so that the focus stays firmly on the characters and issues.

Seize The Day certainly gives you plenty of food for thought. In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election and first year of office, as the murmurs of discontent get louder each day, I found the play’s point about the dangers of single issue politics all the more salient; namely that it’s unfair to racialise every political decision just because a candidate happens to be brown.

However whilst Kwei-Armah’s previous political outing A Statement Of Regret had a firm grip on the myriad social issues it raised without getting muddled (as was unfairly levied at it by some critics at the time), Seize The Day appears to be tripping over its own contradictions.   Jeremy spends most of the play trying to rile against people’s limiting perceptions of him. Yet, at the same time he’s overly concerned with satisfying Lavelle’s narrow-minded concept of what a bona-fide, down-with-the-kids, ‘black’ role model should be.  This inevitably leads to the end of the play having a bit too much of what our friends across the Atlantic call schmaltz.  The unlikely friendship storyline of the refined, uptight Middle Class gentleman and the scallywag teaching each other important life lessons in a short period of time, has been done too many times before.   The play would do perfectly well without this concession to Hollywood cliché – Dead Poets Society/Carpe Diem anyone? – but alas, by its conclusion these sugary sentiments have had their wicked way.

Jeremy has some admirable qualities but he’s no angel.   He lands on his feet too often for comfort, ducking and diving the consequences of some of his most selfish actions.  Whilst with his past work Kwei-Armah seems happy to raise issues and get people thinking without having to come up with straightforward answers – perhaps because there aren’t any – Seize The Day is determined to wrap things up too tidily.  As a result the play’s resolution lacks the delicious ambiguity that has served some of Kwei-Armah’s pieces so well before.

Nevertheless, in other aspects the script shines with the excellence and nuanced characterisation we’ve come to expect from Kwei-Armah.  The play keeps its sense of humour despite the serious subjects up for discussion.

A strong cast is headed up by Holdbrook-Smith who embodies Jeremy as if the role was written for him in mind. Aml Ameen likewise gives an equally natural performance as Lavelle.  Amelia Lowdell is convincingly beleaguered as Alice, Jeremy’s increasingly estranged wife.   Veteran of UK TV drama Jaye Griffiths’ turn as Jennifer, Howard Jones’ formidable colleague, is handled with all the restraint that the role demands, the character’s brilliant political mind constantly bubbling under the surface.  Jennifer’s is the most rewarding female character in the play– holding her own well in a man’s world and not merely the wronged spouse or sexual distraction.

In all, Kwei-Armah remains in good form with Seize The Day… albeit with a more saccharine aftertaste.

Seize the Day plays at the Tricycle Theatre, London until 17 December 2009. Click for info + booking.

Reviewed by Tolita